A macabre murder trial opens this week on the second floor of the white marble courthouse in Placerville. On its face, it involves a pair of scissors, a wrenching struggle and a mother of three young children getting stabbed to death.
But the prosecution alleges the February 2012 killing of Rachel Winkler, 37, in her Cameron Park home is about more than a single, homicidal act by her husband, Todd Winkler, a pharmaceutical company executive and former Air Force fighter pilot.
In court papers, El Dorado County Deputy District Attorney Lisette Suder contends the case is also about the death of Todd Winkler’s previous wife, Catherine Lynn Winkler.
She says it’s about what happened in a car crash off Forest Service Road 244 in White County, Ga., on Sept. 26, 1999. And about the nearly $1.2 million in insurance settlements Todd Winkler got after the pickup truck Catherine was driving tumbled down a hillside.
Authorities in Georgia said Todd was ejected as the truck flipped and rolled. Catherine was trapped under the wreckage and died of burns and smoke inhalation in an ensuing fire.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation cleared Todd Winkler in the 1999 case. But prosecutors in El Dorado County intend to use that crash – and its mystery – to help convict him of murder with a deadly weapon for fatally plunging a pair of scissors into Rachel Winkler’s neck 13 years later.
Todd and Rachel Winkler and their children lived in an upscale pilots’ community in Cameron Park, near the runway of the Cameron Airpark, where Rachel worked as general manager. Their marriage was falling apart.
Prosecutors said Todd Winkler, now 47, knew Rachel had a boyfriend – and began threatening that she, too, might die in a fiery car crash, leaving him to collect another insurance settlement.
Suder argues that Rachel was terrified of her husband, for reasons beyond the hulking physical stature of a man weighing 260 pounds with thick, muscled arms and a barrel chest. She had discovered that he still kept the stored ashes of his former wife, the prosecutor said, and feared he had a dangerous obsession with that fiery crash in Georgia.
“Rachel Winkler knew that Cathy had died in a car crash,” Suder wrote in pretrial documents that persuaded a judge to allow admission of evidence from the Georgia event. “Rachel found Cathy’s ashes and was told by defendant Winkler that she would turn out the same way if she didn’t listen to him.
“Defendant Winkler was planning another staged accident to get insurance money and told Rachel about his plan.”
Defense lawyer David Weiner calls the prosecution theory “a fabrication.” He offers his own complex theory to explain the fateful confrontation: Todd Winkler suffered from a psychiatric condition, dissociative identity disorder, in which victims of trauma lose their sense of identity, memory and consciousness.
Rachel Winkler, a fit woman weighing barely 100 pounds, an art lover and the daughter of an acclaimed impressionist painter, came after her husband with a pair of scissors during an argument over their pending divorce, the defense says.
Weiner says his client entered an altered physical and psychological state during the confrontation and that he killed his wife in self-defense.
An intentional killing
Don Hatfield, Rachel Winkler’s father, doesn’t really want to hear any of this. The Napa resident has endured an arduous wait for the trial, which is expected to begin Wednesday with opening statements. Hatfield also fought a long, and ultimately successful, battle to win custody of his three grandchildren, Eva, now 7, Ariel, 5 and Alex, 3.
“My thinking is that this whole thing has been surreal,” said Hatfield, who has found solace through his painting and faith while raising his daughter’s children. “I mean the wait is like waiting for the second coming of Christ. We think it’s out in some future place. But we’re not really sure what form it will take.”
Hatfield, who is scheduled to testify in the case, doesn’t want to broadcast his thoughts about how his daughter died before the trial. Nor is he interested in parsing the conflicting theories of the prosecution and defense.
But he wants the world to know about Rachel. He describes her as a brilliant woman who graduated at the top of her class in accounting at Sonoma State University and who loved outdoor adventures, from rafting to bungee jumping, as well as painting fairies and unicorns for her children to cherish.
“The loss of my daughter is just an ongoing sadness,” Hatfield said. “There was a time I couldn’t say her name three times without weeping. Now it takes five times. The sense of her absence is palatable. I have these three children who are exceptional reminders of her beauty, of her character, personality and presence.
“They are two little girls and a boy. They are articulate. And they talk about Mommy almost as if she is present.”
The defense doesn’t deny that Todd Winkler killed Rachel. And in an extraordinary concession, Weiner said his client did so intentionally.
In court documents, Weiner said the couple were arguing over details of the divorce before Todd “pushed the scissors into Rachel’s neck as she pleaded with him to work this out.”
“He clearly intended to kill her,” Weiner wrote, “and did so in the belief that she would kill him if he didn’t.”
The defense maintains Rachel came at her husband with scissors and that the killing occurred only after a protracted struggle. Weiner points to police photographs showing small gashes on Todd’s hands, nick marks beneath his eyes, defensive slashes on his palms and a cut on his leg.
And he offers another element: his client’s psychiatric state.
He said Todd Winkler, a graduate of the Air Force Academy who flew F-16 fighter jets and went on to work as an executive for the Abbott pharmaceuticals company, was twice hospitalized for mental illness while serving in the Air Force in Japan and while working for Abbott in Amsterdam.
Weiner said his client had multiple psychiatric evaluations for dissociative identity disorder, which he says results in both an altered consciousness and loss of physical function.
Offering a graphic interpretation of the fatal struggle with Rachel, Weiner said her husband lost the use of his right hand amid the stress of the encounter as he tried to wrest away the scissors. He claims Todd tried to restrain his wife by biting her left wrist while grabbing for the scissors with his left hand.
Todd Winkler feared for his life, Weiner said, adding that the case is about “self-defense” or, at worst, “involuntary manslaughter.”
The husband told an El Dorado County detective, Paul Hadjes, that he sensed what he was about to do as his wife pleaded to live.
“She was saying, ‘We’ll resolve this, we’ll resolve this.’ Yeah. We’ll resolve this,” Winkler said in an interview with the detective included in court documents. “And I felt like if I give her a chance, she’ll be right back at me, and I was exhausted. Um, you know, she was, uh, begging, begging for, uh, her life.”
In court papers, Suder argued that the deaths of two wives in horrific incidents 13 years apart cannot be ignored.
According to reports from the Georgia State Patrol and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Todd and then-wife Catherine Winkler had been camping in the Chattahoochee National Forest when Todd informed his wife that he was suffering a severe allergic reaction to an insect bite.
He told authorities that Catherine raced out at night on mountain roads to get him to a hospital as he hunched in the passenger seat of their pickup.
“It was extremely dark and Cathy was frantic due to my condition,” Winkler said in an interview with authorities six weeks after the accident. “Also, she may have hit a big rock in the road, which may have caused the truck to go off the road. No one knows for sure.”
A post-accident summary by a Georgia insurance claims specialist said a special agent from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation noted in an interview with insurers “that there were some unusual and strange events regarding the circumstances and details” of Catherine Winkler’s death.
But Georgia authorities concluded there was no evidence of foul play, a deliberately caused accident or incendiary device used to set a fire, or of “signs of any marital discord.”
They said Todd Winkler, thrown from the pickup, suffered a swollen knee and other minor injuries. Catherine Winkler died when the crash caused a blaze that burned 3 acres before county and federal crews put it out.
Todd Winkler never went to a hospital for his reported insect bite.
His condition then – and 13 years later – was noted by Suder in her pretrial motion to introduce the Georgia incident.
“Both killings were perpetrated against Winkler’s wives,” the prosecutor wrote. “Defendant Winkler offered innocent explanations for each killing. ... Winkler walked from both incidents virtually unscathed.”
“The Catherine Winkler accidental automobile death proves no similarity except that his wife died,” Weiner responded in his argument against introducing the Georgia case.
El Dorado Superior Court Judge Kenneth J. Melikian ruled that jurors could learn about both deaths in the upcoming trial.